Surfside Kosher Chic
Next time you find yourself craving vegetarian kosher Italian food prepared by a French chef, don't panic -- Cine Cittá Caffé serves just that. Many people associate kosher restaurants with dowdy mom-and-pop operations that cook up dumplingesque dishes topped by sour cream, or falafel joints festooned with travel posters of Tel Aviv. Cine Cittá, which opened in Surfside two months ago, is a modern, minimalist stunner colored in white, pink, and burgundy -- passersby can't help but stop and look inside the all-glass storefront, as nothing on Harding Avenue, which has seen the opening of a number of new restaurants, bears even a slight resemblance to this sleek space. It looks as though it belongs in Manhattan, or London, or Paris -- actually the original branch of CCC is in Paris, which is also the city where designer Frank Alezra, owners Dan Mamou and Frank Taieb, and chef Raymond Gessus are from.
What the passersby will likely see when they peek in, especially if they look closely, is a waitstaff serving fresh, attractive food on white rectangular plates to a mix of international diners. Well, technically they'd have to be inside to sense the worldliness of clientele, telltale accents overheard possibly coming from France, Spain, Israel, or the condominiums of Surfside and Bay Harbor. Wherever they happened to hail from, the patrons who inhabited this cool room during our visits filled it with a warm, family-friendly environment.
Starters are mostly salad-based: Light pink slices of tuna carpaccio, relatively meaty for this dish, are drizzled with fruity olive oil and lemon juice, topped by a lemony little mound of mesclun greens. "Pepperoni bagna cauda," roasted red and yellow peppers marinated in olive oil, anchovies, and vinegar, get served over mesclun greens dressed in balsamic vinaigrette. For a dollar more you can get those same peppers with grilled slices of eggplant, fennel, zucchini, and yellow squash awash in similar balsamic greens. I probably would have done just that had the menu properly described the vegetables as being grilled.
Thin slices of sea bass in the house ceviche are marinated not in lime juice and cilantro, but pickled in vinegar and coriander seeds. As such they taste more like herring than ceviche, and exude a brisk, briny flavor sprightly highlighted with radish, red onion, grapefruit, apple, fruity olive oil, and sprigs of fresh dill.
Because so many starters contain greens, the actual salad section becomes somewhat redundant. Niçoise is offered, as well as panzanella salad, which here is another balsamic-dressed mound of zesty mesclun leaves with tomatoes, capers, black olives, snippets of celery and scallion, and conventional croutons -- as opposed to the big chunks of bread usually found in the Italian versions.
There are no meat or poultry items on the menu, so entrée choices come down to any number of pastas, risottos, and seafood treatments. Risotto dishes, for my money, are better enjoyed shared as an appetizer -- whenever I have one as a main course I feel cheated, like I'm only eating rice while everyone else has a real dinner. So we split a refreshing risotto "verdi," the bright green treatment flecked with pristine culinary harbingers of spring: peas, asparagus, fava beans, and mint.
Lasagna "of the day" at the next table looked tempting -- but it had tuna in it, and I generally find myself in the mood for tuna or lasagna, not both. Went instead with the "pasta assortment," wherein the chef picks three menu pastas and puts them together on one sampler plate. First problem was the chef's selection of all tomato-sauced dishes, the three looking and tasting pretty much the same. The second problem is that they didn't taste very good. Tagliatelle with a tomato-based salmon cream sauce and overcooked nuggets of salmon, tagliatelle pomodoro, and penne alla Siciliana, with squares of roasted eggplant in another tomato-cream sauce, were each dried out, as if cooked beforehand and reheated in the oven. In fact there was no cream evident in either of the two cream-based tomato sauces, nor any real red sauce other than what was coloring each piece of pasta -- a hefty but dreadful plate of food. The regularly portioned pasta dishes being served around us looked moister, and, on another visit, spinach and ricotta-filled ravioli was smoothly gratifying in a rich, creamy white sauce, but just the same, the red sauce needs some work.
On the other hand, the chef sure knows how to handle seafood. A roasted snapper fillet (not "whole snapper" as the menu claims) crackled with crisp, pepper-speckled skin, the white flakes of fish translucently moist. Spinach flan and ratatouille came alongside, and while the latter is a dish few restaurants seem able to master, here it was prepared impeccably, the sweet nature and bright colors coaxed gently from tomatoes, zucchini, and yellow squash, the small cubes of eggplant not bitter at all. Less praiseworthy was the rubbery flan.
Sea bass received a sunny Mediterranean treatment, roasted with finely sliced fennel, radish (a much-neglected vegetable that Cittá happily takes advantage of), tomatoes, lemon, and olive oil. Salmon was also light and simple with soft mashed potatoes and a tangy lemon beurre blanc spotted with "duxelle of eggs" (re: chopped, hard-boiled eggs).
"Kosher" and "world-class wines" are used in the same sentence about as often as "United States" and "World Cup winner." There is nothing about the house wine, a $5.25 glass of Herzog Merlot with mild Manischewitz-like tang, that will change this.
Desserts include a shallow serving of crème brélée in a deep dish, the caramelized sugar crust not crunchy enough, but the custard comfortably warm and redolent of vanilla scent. Tiramisu was an especially creamy version, and very good. Chocolatissimo, another name for the ubiquitous dome of bittersweet chocolate with molten center, is a dessert that always seems to deliver a smile to chocoholics. Cine Cittá Caffé will have a similarly cheery effect on vegetarians, those who keep kosher, and anybody who appreciates fresh, honest food in clean, contemporary surroundings.
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